Some Vietnamese describe the 28 year period from 1946-1974, starting with the independence struggle against the French (which ended in 1954 with victory in Dien Bien Phu) and climaxing in the Vietnam war, which began as a civil war shortly afterwards and escalated into a conflict which had dire consequences for Vietnam’s Indo-Chinese neighbors, as the 10,000 Day War.
Almost an entire generation was lost in this string of armed conflicts, yet despite all that Vietnam has been through, it seems to be an incredible success story. It is hard to believe that a place so ravaged by war has, in a mere 30 years, turned itself into one of the premier backpacker magnets in Asia. It’s like imagining that in 25 years Mogadishu or Kabul could each host their own Khao San Road; that Somali beaches will be a place of pilgrimage for sun worshippers or that the Afghan mountains will be the place to go for a trekking holiday.
Most of us have seen Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Good Morning Vietnam. We know who veterans are, we’ve heard of Agent Orange, and of course, of Napalm. Nixon, Johnson, John and Yoko’s Bed-in, Muhammad Ali… We think we know about the war, until we visit Vietnam and are confronted with Vietnamese perspective on the brutality that it unleashed.
Our first encounter with the war was at the sarcastically named Hanoi Hilton. Hoa Lo, a prison in Hanoi formerly used by the French colonialists to imprison and punish (torture) dissidents, was used during the Vietnam War to hold American pilots who were shot down, the most famous of whom is Senator John McCain.
A hush fell over the prison as visitors shuffled from cell to cell. Photos and exhibitions on prison life detailed the atrocities of the ‘American Imperialist puppets’. Walking around the dank cells, which were painted black, it was hard to imagine how the inmates had survived the damp cold of winter, which was chilling us to the bone despite the extra layers we had put on; it was not the stereotypical tropical heat and humidity that you normally see in Vietnam War movies, but something more akin to a damp European Autumn.
Captions that were eerily reminiscent of some of the propaganda we saw in North Korea last summer accompanied a number of photos in the room where McCain’s fatigues were displayed: Here were POWs cheerfully plucking poultry for their Christmas dinner; there were American servicemen decorating a huge Christmas tree. Groups of men feasted on overflowing plates of festive food as photographers snapped photos; servicemen smiled as they unwrapped gifts and care packages from family and friends…
In the light of claims that McCain was so badly tortured at the Hanoi Hilton that he cannot raise his hands above his head, it was hard to believe that Christmas as Walking past the isolation cells, it was hard to believe that Christmas in the Hanoi Hilton was ever met with anything other than the sense that the inmates were in a deep morass.
Around the citadel in Hué we saw quite a few abandoned war vehicles including tanks were completely burnt out; crude reminders of the soldiers who must have lost there lives or been seriously injured within minutes of being hit. Looking at the charred, rusting remains it was impossible to comprehend what the last moments inside the claustrophobic inferno must have been like.
The sunny forecourt of the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh was like an playground for aerophiles; the darker chapters of Vietnam’s war with America were detailed inside. Though the exhibition rooms had been updated since I was last there – the new exhibitions had a softer tone, absent of the emotive anti-imperialist language so prevalent at the Hanoi Hilton, the exhibition was definitely for those with a weak stomach.
We strongly recommend a visit to the room which commemorates the contribution of war correspondents and photographers making the atrocities of the war public, and garnering support for the anti-war movement.
Most disturbing of all was the section on the biological warfare waged on Vietnam, which documented the toll that it continues to take on the reproductive health of many Vietnamese decades on. Photographs of the grotesque deformities caused by exposure to toxins contained in the rainbow of Agents Orange, Purple, Pink, Green, Blue and White, were met with a hush in the exhibition hall. Jars of deformed foetuses (foeti), photos of burn victims, tales of conjoined twins, still births and the victims of landmines (which continue to be accidentally detonated by civilians today) muted every visitor – a rare thing in our switched on, plugged in interactive world. Several visitors, who had obviously not been prepared for such scenes, retreated promptly with their children who would definitely have had nightmares after seeing what was on display.
Out of respect for the victims of the war, we did not take any photos inside the museum, although we saw several people hungrily snapping away in a way that irked us both. Later that day, while attempting to make sense of what we had seen in a café nearby we wondered allowed what they did with such photos (“Would you like to see my holiday pics? Here is one of some decapitated Viet Cong, who later turned out to be rice farmers, but by the time this photo was taken it was too late for them… Oh and this is one of a bunch of villagers who were set on fire shortly after this photo, which I photographed, was taken… Or perhaps you’d like to see the deformities caused by….”).
War photography is invaluable; we respect the risks that such photographers take to document the atrocities of war, but neither of us can understand the growing trend for visiting places like Auschwitz or the Killing Fields and snapping photos of the instruments of other people’s misery. Photographing mounds of hair, bones or teeth; taking photos of other people’s photos for the family album – What is the point? and more importantly, where is the respect?
If it weren’t for the hammer and sickle fluttering in the wind from almost every street light, and the propaganda posters which pop up everywhere from high streets to farms, one would not think that Vietnam was anything like a Communist country. Ho Chi Minh’s face can be seen everywhere, from bank notes to the banners adorning every street in the capital but there is something decidedly Capitalist about the beat of the drum which the population moves to.
Last week we read an article, on the BBC website, which said among the nouveaux riche $35 bowls of Phó (a noodle soup dish that is popular throughout the country and normally costs about 1 Euro) were all the rage (click here for the article).
Walking down the street in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Kawasakis, Suzukis and Vespas crowd every pavement, while in the big cities LVHM and other luxury brands have outlets (one wonders what percentage of the population can afford to shop there though, because most of the people appear to be wearing fakes).
The new skyscraper in HCMC’s financial centre with its spacey viewing deck, which charges $10 entry, is another symbol of plenty towering over the beautiful colonial centre which seems to be developing with a disregard for the crumbling suburbs. There is a sense that here “some are more equal than others.”
But in the midst of all this one sees the poorest members of the society eking out a living in the gutters of the city. To survive they must work as there is no safety net. To be childless in old age must be terrible for those who are too frail to lug heavy loads, sell fruit on street corners, play courier or run errands for others. At night a steady army of amputees, elderly people and filthy street urchins approach tables in the tourist areas hoping for alms, which will make the next meal, the next day possible.
Filing past the body of Ho Chi Minh, inside his marble mausoleum, I wondered what he would have made of the expensive restaurants, exclusive bars and the luxury cars, which members of the Party elite (and many others) seem to favor.
At the bottom of the staircase leading up to the mega statue, which commemorates one of the defining battles that led to the independence of Vietnam in Dien Bien Phu, we met two Germans looking to change any Lao Kip we had for their Vietnamese Dong. However we had exchanged our money before crossing the border, but we did spend about half an hour exchanging travel tips as we were heading in opposite directions.
The German couple said that Vietnam had been interesting, but lamented the number of rip-offs and scams they had experienced; cautioning that prices in Vietnam are not set and overcharging is rife. They mentioned feeling like walking dollar signs, constantly being overcharged and having to haggle over items which one would normally expect to have a fixed price, or even despite a fixed price had been given, e.g. at the hairdresser.
To survive here, you really need to know how to haggle and barter. In the two biggest cities Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, comradeship seems a thing of the past. Now it is all about the money – every man for himself.
At hotels prices may decrease as much as 50% if you know how to haggle; everything from bus tickets, which ranged from 250,000 Dong (or 10 Euros), at one travel agency to 170,000 Dong (7 Euros) two doors down, is negotiable. The price depends on what you look like i.e. how you are dressed, and how well travelled you look (or gullible the salesperson thinks you might be).
One morning as we were checking out the statue of Lenin, which is down the road from Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Hanoi, a man cycled up with a stack of books. He offered to sell us the Lonely Planet Bangladesh and Sri Lanka guides (which we will need in a few weeks). His asking price? 500,000 Dong (20 Euro). Now that’s what we call a rip-off! In HCMC, we were quoted 60,000 for the Bangladesh guide. In Vietnam, we soon learned that you really have to shop around!
Unfortunately we experienced very bad weather during our travels in Vietnam, so sampling the local cuisine became one way of passing the time in the depressing cold of Hanoi and helped us to wait out the rain from Hué to Nha Trang.
Some of the standard fare we sampled included Phó, the national dish of Vietnam, which seems to be everyone’s first choice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Phó is a broth, which contains white rice noodles; depending on the cook they may be thin or thick. Meat (pork or beef) is also included and green leafy vegetables. One also receives lime to squeeze into the bowl. The best Phó we sampled was about 10 minutes after our arrival in the northern town of Den Bien Phu.
Our favorite dish in Vietnam has to be the spring rolls. In each restaurant they are a bit different. The extra salty spring rolls in Hué were particularly good as were the fresh spring rolls, which are uncooked (sometimes called summer rolls). In Hoi An we were able to sample White Rose, a local specialty made from shrimp and rice paper.
Two other great things about Vietnamese cuisine are the baked goods – fantastic patisseries all over the country serve fresh baguettes (the French did do one good thing for the region) and the famously thick, dark and incredibly strong Vietnamese coffee. It is perfect for that caffeine injection in the morning and given the pace of most Vietnamese cities, you need it (well I need it, unfortunately I was not successful in converting Martin into a coffee drinker).
Finally if you are game, try the local Dalat wine. It’s not the best wine we have ever had, but we did manage to polish of a bottle with a couple of baguettes by the river in Hoi An one evening at sunset. We can also recommend La Rue and Saigon beer. In Ho Chi Minh we found that most of the Germans, being the bargain hunters that they are, had done their due diligence and discovered that the cheapest place to get beer was a Bangladeshi restaurant in the backpacker ghetto. At 8000 dong or less than 30 Euro cents for a 450 ml bottle of beer, developing a ‘Bavarian Belly’ is incredibly cheap.
Finally we were on our way to Vietnam, some home comforts and a little warmth; however at 5 am we woke to find that the whole of Munag Khua was pitch black and a steady rain had begun to fall. Martin volunteered to go down the rickety staircase, made from scraps of wood, to find the man who was responsible for the ferry, which would take us 10 metres across the river to the bus.
A search with a head torch and a few calls in the dark woke the boatman, who had the monopoly on the pathetic ferry that, if the river were lower, and our baggage lighter, we would totally have crossed on foot. Once we made it to the dock with our baggage, we found that a few others were waiting for the rusty boat, which rocked alarmingly in the water as we boarded. Onboard we were hostage to the grossly inflated fare, which the boatman (who appeared to be a little hung over) demanded.
Once the motor was on, we travelled for approximately 30 seconds before being delivered to the opposite bank of the river, where the bus was due to leave at 5:30 am. We found a bus, but no driver and nobody on that side of the river seemed to be awake yet. We waited, as directed, outside the largest building there and sheltered from the rain, taking turns to go to the loo behind the parked bus.
Approximately half an hour later, the bus began to be loaded with all manner of mats, food, tools and building materials. This loading would continue all the way to the border with Vietnam; we stopped frequently to load yet more people, perishable, non-perishable and live goods throughout the morning. Surprisingly, some of the young people we picked up were wearing Diesel jeans and toting Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Coach handbags – of course none of them were real. The irony of the fact that these luxury brands had found their way here, to the north eastern corner of Laos, a place swimming in a sea of mud, where people live in depressingly basic conditions and signs such as the one below can be seen, was not lost on either of us.
The journey along the treacherous hairpin bends on the road to the border was much longer than we had anticipated. When we finally arrived, a large group of guards, who looked formidable in their smart uniforms, were waiting. As the only farangs (foreigners), we were singled out; a guard barked at us indicating that we had to sit down and submit to a temperature check with a digital thermometer. As I submitted to the gruff guard who inserted the dirty nozzle of the digital thermometer into my ear, I began to wonder if it was possible to catch something nasty from it.
After about 15 minutes, we were ushered into Vietnam. As we filed past the statue of Uncle Ho in the hallway, which was uncannily reminiscent of the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il we had to bow in front of last year in North Korea, we exchanged a knowing look. Finally we were in Vietnam!